There is a growing clamour for some kind of response to the suffering of those with terminal illnesses. Parliament must stop relying on the courts to do its job
Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose washing machines, cars and electrical tin can openers. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose life.
But not death. You can’t choose death. Death chooses you. What’s your family’s genetic poison? Heart attack? Stroke? Cancer?
As Bob Monkhouse said: “I’d like to die like my old dad, peacefully in his sleep, not screaming like his passengers.”
A life spent insulated against risk is no help in the cruel lottery of death. Certainly not for Noel Conway, once an active, life-embracing man who faces the nightmare passing “entombed in my own body” with motor neurone disease.
He is the latest in a long line of people seeking help from the courts in their bid for assisted dying, a chance to remove the terror from their last days and reclaim control from the arbitrary humiliations of his condition.
He seeks help from the courts because Parliament appears remarkably impervious to appeals for help. Although public opinion backs some form of humanitarian aid for the dying, the Palace of Westminster sticks with the Suicide Act 1961 which determines that it is wrong to take a life in any circumstances.
That position is increasingly untenable in the era of secular human rights. The last time the Supreme Court was called in to make an accommodation by the back door , the justices reluctantly refused. They gave MPs a ticking-off, reminding them the courts were not a substitute for the nation’s debating chamber and policy maker.
It gave fair warning that, unless Parliament acted, it would be inclined to hit the red button and declare the present policy vacuum incompatible with human rights. Parliament’s reticence is understandable. If someone acts to take a life they step over a line. Make the line porous and all sorts of miscreants crawl through.
The last human right
However, there should be no room on the green benches for the Three Wise Monkeys. For they pass the buck to other agencies, like the Supreme Court or the Crown Prosecution Service which has been forced to take on the task of codifying public interest prosecutions of mercy killers – doing Parliament’s work without the same scrutiny or discussion.
Ultimately, it may be through one of these side doors that assisted dying legislation tiptoes.
For example, disabled equality legislation could ultimately suggest – as Stephen Hawking has done – that it is “discrimination against the disabled to deny them the right to kill themselves that able bodied people have”.
The law will change. It will. The growing elderly population, the shortcomings of the NHS and the expectations of people accustomed to controlling their fate will demand answers.
This change would be better handled by the institution established for the purpose. Better this debate is started by a statement of intent from Government signalling that it understands the clamour and will investigate the means to meet the needs of those who, reasonably and rationally, wish to die while protecting the vulnerable.
Because the last human right is, surely, the right to dignity in death.